Why Midnight?

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So said G-d: “At midnight, I shall go out into the midst of Egypt…”

Exodus 11:4

At midnight of Nissan 15th, 2448 (1313 bce), G-d broke the last manacle of Egyptian bondage by killing all Egyptian firstborn, and the nation of Israel was born as a free people.[1] The time is significant: twice the Torah emphasizes that the event occurred exactly at midnight,[2] and to this day, “midnight” is a factor in our annual re-experience of the Exodus at the seder held each year on the eve of Nissan 15.[3]

But can an event actually take place at midnight? It would seem not. If midnight is the line that divides the night in two, then it is not a time period of any duration. No matter how minute a time-particle we might envision as occupying the center of the night, this particle can itself be halved—its first half would belong to the first half of the night and its second half to the post-midnight half of the night. Indeed, a more literal translation of the Hebrew words kachatzot halailah, rendered above as “at midnight,” would read, “as the night divides.”[4] How, then, can anything be said to occur at the time that “the night divides”?

The Midrash cites two opinions as to the nature of the night’s “division” that first Passover eve. According to Rabbi Yishmael, “The night’s Creator halved it”; according to Rabbi Judah ben Beteira, “He who knows His times and moments halved it.”[5]

Sixteenth-century sage Rabbi David ibn Zimra (the “Radbaz”) explains: Rabbi Yishmael is saying that G-d, who created night, day and time itself, can obviously manipulate them at will. G-d literally split the night in two, opening an expanse of timelessness between its halves. In this “time-vacuum” G-d smote the Egyptian firstborn and freed the Children of Israel. Rabbi Judah, however, is of the opinion that G-d effected the Exodus within physical time, not in some time-transcendent reality. What G-d did was to coordinate His action with the exact midpoint of the night, so that the initial state ended with the night’s first half, and the state effected by His action began with the onset of its second half. This He was able to do because “He knows His times and moments” absolutely.[6]

[In other words, every action is the effecting of a change from state A to state B. So in truth, no time duration is required in which to effect a change, only a point in time[7] to mark the end of state A and the beginning of state B. But since no physical instrument, human or artificial, can measure time with absolute accuracy, man, in timing his deeds, can, at best, define a stretch of time (perhaps, even, a very small stretch of time) within which the change will take place. G-d, however, who has absolute knowledge of “His times and moments,” can position His deed (in this case, the taking of the lives of the Egyptian firstborn and Israel’s transformation from slavery to freedom) exactly on the durationless line that halves the night, effecting a change at the very point that lies between the night’s former and latter parts.]

What is the point of all this? Why did the plague of the firstborn have to transpire precisely at midnight? And what is the significance behind the differing scenarios of Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Judah?

The Tenth Plague

The plague of the firstborn was the tenth of a series of plagues visited upon the Egyptians. But there was a basic difference between this plague and the first nine—a difference that touches on the very nature and function of the plagues themselves.

The primary objective of the first nine plagues was to prove a point—to instill an awareness among the Egyptians. In Moses’ words to Pharaoh: “So said G-d: ‘With this you shall know that I am G-d: behold, I shall strike … the waters of the Nile, and they shall turn to blood”; “If you do not let My people go, I will send swarms of wild beasts at you … in order that you know that I am G-d”; “Once again, I am sending all My plagues… In order that you know that there is none like Me in the land.” [8] The tenth plague, however, was more than a demonstration of divine power: it came to punish and destroy, to break Egypt and free Israel from its midst.[9]

This explains a puzzling difference between the first nine plagues and the plague of the firstborn. The first nine plagues threatened only the Egyptians; the Children of Israel were immune to them.[10] The Midrash tells us that during the plague of blood, if an Egyptian and a Jew drank from the same cup, the Jew drank water while the Egyptian drank blood; that during the plague of darkness, a Jew could enter an Egyptian’s home in broad daylight while to the Egyptian the world was shrouded in darkness.[11] But in the case of the plague of the firstborn, the Jews were as vulnerable to the plague as their Egyptian neighbors, and a series of protective measures had to be taken so that the Jewish firstborn would not also die.

The Jews were commanded to make a “Passover offering” (korban pesach) to G-d—slaughter a lamb or goat, sprinkle its blood on the two doorposts and the lintel of their homes, and eat its meat that night with matzah and bitter herbs. That night, the Jewish people also circumcised themselves. It was only in the merit of these two mitzvot that the Jewish firstborn were spared.[12] In the words of the prophet, “I passed over you, and I saw you weltering in your blood (i.e., the blood of circumcision and the blood of the korban pesach) and I said to you: By your blood you shall live!”[13]

The Jews in Egypt were a people meritorious in faith but deficient in behavior. On the one hand, we are told that their faith in G-d and His promise of redemption never wavered, even in the darkest moments of their ordeal;[14] on the other hand, they had assumed the pagan practices of their enslavers.[15] Thus, the first nine plagues, whose function was “in order that you know that I am G-d,” had no cause to afflict the Jewish people, whose awareness of the divine truth was beyond reproach. But when the tenth plague came to punish and destroy the Egyptians for their sins and to “take out a nation from the womb of a nation”—to extract the Jew from the society of which he was part and forge him into a holy people—here, G-d’s “attribute of justice” had cause to argue: “How are these any different from these? These are idol-worshippers, and these are idol-worshippers!”[16]

Thus, on the night of Nissan 15, it was necessary to differentiate between Egyptian and Jew. G-d had to pass over the homes of the Jews when the Egyptian firstborn were killed—indeed, it is this divine discrimination that gives “Passover” (Pesach, in the Hebrew) its name. To this end, G-d clothed a nation “bare and naked of virtues”[17] with mitzvot, in order to distinguish them from their neighbors.

Two Visions of Midnight

However, there is still much that requires clarification. If we were no less deserving of punishment, and no more deserving of redemption, than our enslavers—if the divine sense of justice dictated that “these are no different than these”—what moved G-d to grant us the mitzvot to distinguish us from the Egyptians? And if, on the other hand, G-d wished to redeem us despite all, why the need for these special mitzvot to protect us from the plague of the firstborn?

Indeed, G-d chose to redeem us not because we were any “better” than the Egyptians, but because of His intrinsic love for us. In the words of the prophet Malachi: “Is not Esau a brother to Jacob? … But I love Jacob.”[18] Even when there is no cause to distinguish between Jacob and Esau, G-d chooses Jacob. At the very onset of Moses’ mission to free the Jewish people, G-d told him to communicate to Pharaoh that “Israel is My child, My firstborn.”[19] I love him with a father’s unconditional love, G-d is saying, a love that transcends considerations of virtue and deservedness.

This, explain the Kabbalistic masters, is the reason why the Exodus took place at midnight. The first half of the night embodies the divine attribute of justice (din or gevurah), and its second half, the divine attribute of benevolence (chessed). Midnight is the juncture that fuses and supersedes them both, since the power to join two opposites can only come from a point that transcends their differences. “Midnight” is thus an expression of a divine involvement in creation that transcends all standard criteria for punishment or reward.[20]

“At midnight,” said G-d to Moses, “I shall go out into the midst of Egypt.”[21] “‘I’—and not an angel; ‘I’—and not a messenger.”[22] At midnight I shall disregard all the “attributes,” norms, and processes I have established to define My governance of the world and relate to you as I am and as I choose.

At the same time, G-d provided us with mitzvot with which to deserve our redemption. For a most basic feature of the covenant that G-d desired to forge with us is that the deepest aspects of our relationship with Him should be manifested in our daily lives via the mitzvot of the Torah;[23] that the most sublime spiritual truths be actualized by the means of physical deeds. So although G-d superseded all standards of deservedness and undeservedness to redeem us, He granted us the means by which to deserve our redemption—the mitzvot of korban pesach and circumcision.

[Indeed, both these mitzvot embody, on a human scale, the divine response they were designed to elicit. The offering of the korban pesach was an act that defied all conventions of logic and feasibility. The Jews were commanded to take a lamb—one of the deities of Egypt—and keep it bound in their homes for four days, slaughter it, sprinkle its blood on their doorposts and eat its flesh. Reason argued, “Can we slaughter the idol of Egypt before their eyes, and they won’t stone us?”[24] But reason was set aside to do the will of G-d. G-d responded in kind, setting aside the norms of His “justice” and “benevolence.”

Circumcision, the bodily sign of our covenant with G-d, also emphasizes its supra-rational basis. The Jewish child is circumcised at the age of eight days, when he cannot possibly appreciate the significance of the deed or even be aware of it. Why don’t we wait until the age of intellectual maturity (as we do, for example, with the mitzvah of tefillin)? Again, this is a mitzvah given to us by the Almighty to access the reason- and rule-transcending essence of our relationship.]

Halving the Night

Hence the alternate interpretations offered by Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Judah as to the nature of the midnight of the Exodus.

Rabbi Yishmael sees the Exodus as a supra-natural, supra-rational event. To him, midnight of Nissan 15 is no temporal landmark in time. To take the Jews out of Egypt, G-d stopped the clocks of creation, splitting night, time and natural order apart to reveal the divine essence and will that underlies and transcends all.

Rabbi Judah, on the other hand, focuses on the natural dimension to the Exodus. True, to pass over the homes of the Israelites as their Egyptian peers were destroyed, to extract a nation from a nation it all but resembled morally and spiritually, there had to be a divine choice that superseded the rules and standards that G-d has built into creation. But is it not also true that this choice had to be accessed and actualized from within the terms of these rules and standards themselves? Is not the entire point of the Exodus, and of the revelation at Sinai to which it led, that man make himself a worthy vessel to the divine, and that our finite, physical world be developed as a receptacle to the infinite goodness and perfection of its Creator?

To Rabbi Judah, midnight of Nissan 15 is a point in time—a point of entry for the all-transcending truth of G-d, but an integral part of our “conventional” existence all the same.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Passover of 5721 (1961) and 5722 (1962), and Shabbat Bo and Shabbat Yitro of 5740 (January 26 and February 9, 1980)[25]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

 

[1]. The Jews physically left Egypt twelve hours later, at midday of Nissan 15. But from the moment the firstborn were killed, the last vestige of Egyptian resistance to their release crumbled and they were a free people.

[2]. Exodus 11:4 (see Rashi) and 12:29.

[3]. Midnight is the deadline for the eating of the matzah and the bitter herbs, and, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, for the eating of the meat of the Passover offering (today it is the deadline for eating the afikoman which represents the Passover offering at our seder). See Tosafot, Megillah 21a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 477a; Ramoh and Dagul Mirvavah, ibid.

[4]. As per Rashi’s first interpretation, which he considers the “straightforward meaning, which best explains the verse in its context.” But also according to the second interpretation cited by Rashi, which translates kachatzot as “about midnight,” the plague of the firstborn took place exactly at midnight—see there.

[5]. Mechilta, Exodus 12:29.

[6]. Radbaz Responsa, vol. I, ch. 814.

[7]. In geometry, a “point” occupies no area, representing not a quantity of space but a position relative to which area is defined. It is in this context that we use the term “point” to connote the same in regard to time.

[8]. Exodus 7:17, 8:17-18 and 9:14.

[9]. In ancient Egypt, the firstborn held all the key religious and governmental positions (Pharaoh himself was a firstborn, and was spared only so that he should witness the liberation of Israel and the destruction of his army). The death of all firstborn spelled the demise of Egyptian power and prestige.

[10]. Exodus 8:18-19, 9:6, 9:26, and 10:23.

[11]. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 9:9 and 14:3.

[12]. To this day, all Jewish firstborn are obligated to fast on the day before Passover in acknowledgment that they, too, deserved to die in the plague of the firstborn.

[13]. Ezekiel 16:6.

[14]. See Exodus 4:31; Mechilta, Shemot 14: 31.

[15]. See Zohar Chadash, beginning of Yitro; Yalkut Reuveni, Shemot 14:27 and Zohar, part II, 170b.

[16]. Yalkut Reuveni and Zohar, ibid.

[17]. Ezekiel 16:7; Rashi on verse.

[18]. Malachi 1:2.

[19]. Exodus 4:22.

[20]. Ohr HaTorah, section 5 of the discourse Vayechalek.

[21]. Exodus 12:2.

[22]. Sifri on Deuteronomy 26:8; Passover Haggadah.

[23]. In G-d’s words to Moses: “When you take this nation out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d at this mountain”—i.e., receive the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:12).

[24]. Exodus 8:22.

[25]., Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 864-872; vol. XXI, p. 55-61.

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Donald Zimmerman
7 years ago

Excellant commentary, thank you,Donald